Aug 30, 2013

Movie Review: Goldsnake aka Suicide Mission to Singapore (1966)

There were certain code words in Sixties movie titles that instantly denoted spy, and the makers of Eurospy movies took full advantage of all of them. “Agent,” of course, along with any number of variations on the numbers “0” and “7.” “Operation.” “Assignment.” Even “Man” (usually when preceded by “Our” or “That”). But at the height of Bondmania, in the wake of Goldfinger, one of the surest ways to look for a spy movie when scanning the marquees on 42nd street was to watch for the word “Gold.” And if it was used in compound word unlikely to be found in any dictionary, then you knew you’d struck, er... gold. Goldginger, Goldwather (whatever that is), Goldseven, Goldvan, Goldman, Golden Men, Golden Boy… the variations were endless, and rarely had anything to do with the film’s plot. Even when they did, that meaning tended to be arbitrary. (Why else, for instance, would Inspector Ginko name his climactic operation "Operation Goldvan" in Danger: Diabolik if it wasn’t being considered as an alternate title for the film?) Imagine my surprise, then, when an actual golden snake turns up in the final minutes of Goldsnake, thus justifying the predictably (and gloriously) Bassey-esque title ballad! (You can hear that for yourself on YouTube.) Yes, there's actually a golden snake in the movie Goldnake! (Eventually.) In some Eurospy movies you have to appreciate the little things, and I appreciated that. And Goldsnake is a movie where you have to appreciate the little things, because big ones don’t tend to happen.

Stelio Candelli (Planet of the Vampires), credited here as “Stanley Kent,” gets his only shot at Eurospy stardom (though he played a supporting role in Secret Agent 777) as agent Kurt Jackson. It becomes clear fairly quickly why he didn’t get another opportunity. He’s fairly cardboard in the role (and honestly a bit weird-looking for a leading man), and totally devoid of the charm necessary to pull off a Eurospy lead. Jackson is a Western Intelligence agent of indeterminate nationality (he seems to report to French masters, but also refers to taking orders from the Pentagon) who pops up in Singapore with an assignment to track down a missing atom scientist and his son. No, that wasn’t a typo. In this singular instance, the missing atom scientist has a young son and not a comely daughter, as missing scientists nearly always have. While daughters tend to be integral to the plot, however, the son is barely mentioned (and indeed eventually disappears altogether from the narrative).

The scientist, Dr. Chang, has invented a nuclear bomb the size and shape and texture of a golf ball. In fact, if I didn’t know better, I would suspect that the producers were pinching pennies by just using a golf ball, but we’re assured that it’s a nuke on the inside. Naturally, this is of great interest to competing world powers, all of whom are searching for the scientist. Kent doesn’t get his usual briefing in the customary curtained room in Washington or Paris (a popular cost-cutting measure in Eurospy films was to save the expense of a wall by using a curtain to close off at least one side of a boss’s office), but instead turns up already in action at the airport in Singapore, ready for his Dr. No scene. (Even after Goldfinger had reset the characteristics of a Bondian spy movie, Eurospy imitators still diligently went through that whole Dr. No routine of the spy arriving at an airport and finding that either someone wants to take his picture or someone has sent a car for him that he hasn’t requested. In this case, it’s the latter.) Perhaps this is because director Ferdinando Baldi is challenging narrative conventions and chose to boldly begin in media res… or perhaps it’s because Goldsnake is so low budget it can’t even afford the customary stock footage aerial of Washington and the inevitable curtain-walled office. I’m inclined to believe the latter, though I will say that Baldi makes the most of his shoestring budget by filming entirely on location, which makes the proceedings appear more exotic, and hence more expensive.

Also adding production value is a gorgeous white E-Type Jaguar—always a plus in a Sixties spy film. It’s got some gadgets, but they’re the type that don’t require any special effects. (He pushes a knob on the dash twice and he’s able to talk on the radio… or at least talk at the dashboard.) Locations (the best mansions and docks Singapore has to offer), cars (there’s actually another E-type—a yellow one—later on!), creative gadgets (exploding matches, guaranteed to come in handy when a villain doesn’t have a light to offer you for your last cigarette!) and a strong supporting cast (Juan Cortez is effective in the Kerim Bey role, Jean, and Yoko Tani and Annabella Incontrera lend the requisite beauty and glamor while both proving themselves appropriately ruthless at times as well) all help gloss over the shoestring budget, but unfortunately it shows glaringly when the time comes for action. The most frustrating thing about Goldsnake is that every time things start to get really exciting… it cuts away to another location or another day. If Kurt gets surrounded by thugs with machine guns, he’ll manage to pick off one or two, and then instead of witnessing how he gets out of that situation, we’re treated to a scene of him discussing it later with Jean. Or if he escapes from the villain’s house on foot as armed henchmen prepare to give chase, instead of showing us the ensuing foot chase, we see Kurt waking up the next morning in bed next to his gorgeous assistant Annie Wong (Tani).

Worst of all, any forms of exotic travel are glossed over. At one point Kurt gets Jean to order him a fighter jet so he can get to an island. We’re treated to an actual shot of an actual airport with our actors actually next to the jet, thus proving it’s not stock footage. Kurt climbs into the cockpit in his suit and tie (spies don’t need flight suits!), straps in, and… and we cut to him disembarking from a ferry boat onto the island. What happened, movie?!? Any scenario I can imagine is far too exciting not to be shown. I’m guessing he probably got chased by a bunch of enemy jets, had an awesome dogfight, but ultimately succumbed to superior numbers. So he ejected over the ocean, shot down the final two enemy fighters with his pistol as he parachuted down, then managed to guide himself to land atop that ferry boat. Right? That must be it. But the actual movie, sadly, just cuts from Kurt seating himself in the cockpit to getting off the boat. (And I’m guessing they probably showed us every last centimeter of film stock showing that plane.)

Sex scenes are similarly glossed over, which is par for the course for that era, but so are the seductions. Usually we’re at least treated to the few cheesy lines the agent uses to lure the lovely lady to bed with him. Not here. In one case, Kurt and Annie find themselves fending off gunmen near a beach. Both fall in the water leaving their clothes soaking wet—an untenable predicament which can only be rectified (in Eurospyland, anyway) by sleeping together right away. Not only do we not see how they escape the remaining gunmen; poor Stelio doesn’t even get to suggest, “let’s get out of these wet clothes!” with an arched eyebrow. What we do get is kind of interesting, though. Jean comes to find Kurt, sees the undressed Annie, and connects the dots. This leads to a smug conversation between the two men discussing the role of women in espionage (and, by extension, sadly, in espionage films... or at least Eurospy films). “Just imagine how terrible it would be, spying without women?” Jean asks. “Where else could a spy who fell in the water try to warm up?” Kurt pats his buddy on the shoulder and agrees, “What women mean to our job I don't have to explain to you, do I?” And they share a knowing chuckle. I'm sure all the women who have made sacrifices for their countries in the clandestine services over the years appreciate their consideration.

Overall, Goldsnake ranks pretty low in the Eurospy canon for the things it omits. But that’s no reason to scoff at what it manages to contain. For the most part Goldsnake checks all the boxes expected of low-budget Sixties spy entertainment. We’ve got the cars, the girls, the gadgets, the suave(ish) hero in a dinner jacket. In fact, Kurt Jackson deserves special recognition for the sheer amount of time he spends in his dinner jacket. He dons it for most of the first half of the movie! And that counts for something. In fact, the movie does a good enough job at conveying the spirit of its genre that its poster (admittedly better than the film, as is often the case) became the cover of Matt Blake and David Deal’s genre bible The Eurospy Guide! (The colors were altered on both the Jag and the dinner jacket, presumably because red and black make for more dynamic advertising than a lot of whites.) This is definitely not “first Eurospy movie” material (or even second, eighth or tenth), but seasoned connoisseurs will still find plenty to enjoy here. Goldsnake hasn't got much, but it makes the most of what it does have.

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